Category Archives: Hiking

On and off the Arctic Circle Trail (2)

Arctic Litter Trail
Litter in hunting area, Itinneq (Ole's Lakseelv). © Lodewijk Muns 2017

Rocks and clouds, shrubs and moss. A minimalist landscape in endless variations. The arctic tundra has a melancholy quality, with autumnal colours in late summer.

A different kind of melancholy was on our minds when we booked our passage to Greenland. Melancholy, or rather anguish: about the fragility of its habitats, the melting icecap, the opening northwest passage, container ship pollution and small ports exploding into large commercial centres. The doom of progress pushed onward by a mentality of environmental disrespect.

A mentality that leaves its traces, on a small but disturbing scale, on the trail itself. Continue reading

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On and off the Arctic Circle Trail (1)

Two Towns, and What Lies between Them
Leaving Kangerlussuaq. © Lodewijk Muns 2017

The somewhat grandly named Arctic Circle Trail parallels a tiny 165 km segment of the Arctic Circle. It runs between two Greenlandic towns not connected by any road, Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut. What lies between them is rock, swamp, shrubland, an uncountable number of picturesque lakes, pools and puddles, and a trail increasingly trodden by walkers from all over the world.

With snow covering the land for most of the year, an overland connection should be of limited use. Under a snowmobile’s caterpillar tracks the hiker’s 7-12 days journey shrinks to one of less than two hours. A car should be nearly useless, I would think, when all you can do is drive some 35 km to the ice cap in the north-east, and 10 km to the harbour in the south-west. Continue reading

Doggy Sentiments

Dog wet and freezing © Lodewijk Muns 2014

I’ve known a man who hated all living things that bore a human imprint — from cultivated landscapes to house plants and pets. An unlivable state of mind, of course, and probably not quite sincere. But understandable: the craving for the wilderness, the feeling that being human is a curse.

We can’t escape from our humanity, and can’t escape from our own imprint upon nature, which in the grand perspective belongs to natural history too. Parks and pastures, cows and horses, cats and dogs can be beautiful, moving or charming, within bounds (excluding lap dogs, daffodils and feral pigeons). Despite the fact that their likableness is largely the product of our own making them to our liking.

Why do we (or most of us) like dogs? — Because they have been bred to live with us and milk our sentiments. It’s not their fault if large-eyed and furry they may look like a Disneyfied version of themselves. We should, I suppose, admire nature’s adaptability to us and try to improve our own adaptability to nature.

Stories about smart dogs following hikers are common enough. I’ll add my own to the lot, for sentimental reasons.
Continue reading

On to Cape Wrath (4)

At Last, the Lighthouse

The intensely anticipated endpoint of the trail is a rock and a building on top of it. Directed towards the sea, the lighthouse keeps sailors at safe distance. Landward, it lures hikers into its boggy hinterland. First glimpsed from Sandwood Bay – a tiny speck of white in the hazy blue – it tells us: just 13 km to go!

As our guidebook says in one of its more evocative paragraphs:
“From the headland that juts imperiously over the broad ochre strand of Sandwood Bay, you may catch a first glimpse of the Cape Wrath lighthouse peeking over the low, dun hills of the horizon, beckoning you the final few miles towards the end of one of the world’s finest long-distance walks.”

A few times during this hike I’ve had the feeling of playing a part in a well scripted adventure, and this is one of those moments. The weather beautifully contributes to the scenario. Arriving on Sandwood’s “ochre strand” during the last few hours of a stretch of five sunny, almost summery days, we are allowed to enjoy its glory in full. Shortly after we leave the beach to cross the dark brown moors, fleecy clouds start covering the sky. And when we finally complete our slog, when the lighthouse is fully in sight, the sky has turned grim and gray, with an icy wind blowing against us.

Cape Wrath © Lodewijk Muns 2016

The whitewashed lighthouse itself looks short and sturdy, a chess pawn lost to the game. It is the disorderly array of outbuildings, their decay, but mainly the traditional low dry-stone wall encircling the compound that contribute to the enchanting quality of the spot – and of course the steepness of the cliff, sensed rather than seen, visible only through a crevice in the crumbling wall.

Definitive, desolate, and inhospitable. We wouldn’t have wanted it otherwise. A little proud we are to have braved these 350 km of peat, swamps, daffodils, ticks, wild rivers, fierce northwestern wind, hail, rain and snow, Gaelic spelling, and even a few too many stretches of asphalt. Midges and rivers in spate, two main deterrents of the trail, we’ve been spared: the season was favourable. It was mostly the detours around the countless deep puddles that tended to wear us out. But after a few days of sunshine the black soil had become noticeably drier, a kind of liquorice with crackling crust, and the going became easier.

Camping on the site is not impossible, but we’ve had enough of the icy wind and despite our love for the wilderness we are more than curious about the Ozone Café – reputedly open 24/7, all year round. It doesn’t look that way. The narrow red doors are closed, though not locked, and once inside we find the place cold and deserted, though still a welcome shelter from the wind. There is a roller shutter in one of the walls of the high, narrow and echoing place, and a reception bell on the counter. A ring produces no result. We decide to stay anyhow, and if left alone, to cook our meal and sleep on the floor.

But while we’re unpacking, a rattling noise: the shutter goes up, and in the opening appears the tall and melancholy figure of the owner. John Ure, deservedly famous from numerous travel reports, lives up to his promise – to stand by in this lonely place at all hours.

Unsure what kind of services we may expect this late, we leave the initiative to our host. Just nodding to his proposals we are served a simple meal and beers, a miraculous portable gas heating carried in from a closet, a clothes horse to dry our soaked stuff, mattresses on the floor, and as a complimentary extra, an excellent single malt shared with the landlord by candle light.

This is exactly the kind of thing we had hoped for – but more: an act of outstanding hospitality.

It cannot be the 200 or so CWT’ers a year who keep this place open. Most revenue must come from the day tourists who arrive the easy way (and I guess it’s they who purchase the Cape Wrath T-shirts, caps and beany hats). The transport service that brings them up here – minibus and miniferry from the Kyle of Durness – will also be our escape from the place.

We’re grateful to have experienced the CWT and its final destination in their present, rough condition. How long will it remain this way? A 2013 business plan proposes exactly what the wilderness seeker may fear: “development” of the place. That means: raising the numbers of visitors from an estimated 6000 to at least 10.000 per year, keeping them longer on the spot, and getting them to spend more. It sounds like taking the Wrath out of Cape Wrath.

On to Cape Wrath (3)

Daffodilia Is Everywhere

A garden and a landscape are different things, obviously. A city garden is an enclave, an artificial miniature habitat where plants meet that never meet in nature. But outside the city gardens are often open to the landscape, or part of it.

One might hope that people who choose to buy a house in a spectacular setting –  Scottish highlands, Dutch polders, wherever – have an eye for it. That looking out of their windows they enjoy the hills or moors or pastures, and shape their place in harmony with its surroundings.

But often this is not the case. It is above all the commercially averaged aesthetics of the garden centre that dictates garden design, a standardised vision of what a garden ought to be. Situated in the landscape, such a garden often looks like a petty act of protest.

Cottage, Glen Achall © Lodewijk Muns 2016

Cottage, Glen Achall

And in spring it is the daffodil that dominates the scene.

As a product of nature it is beyond criticism. But in its garden varieties it has lost whatever charm it may originally have had (like the tulip and so many other flowers). The garden daffo is a crudely coloured bugle that waddles spastically on an overlong stalk (“fluttering and dancing”, in Wordsworth’s flattering description). Mute fanfares in a show of shameless self-celebration.

Given the bloated reputation and popularity of this flower, it might be interesting to organize a Worst of Narcissist Excesses photo contest. There were some precious places on the trail that I failed to shoot (much better than the modest patch pictured here). I still hesitate to collect the characteristically ugly and unlikable.

The winning contribution might as well be Dutch, for this nation has not only a strong tradition of growing and exporting the daffodil bulb, but its obsession with planting it all over the waysides may exceed even that of the Brits.

On to Cape Wrath (2)

One Trail, No Trail, Many Trails

“The Cape Wrath Trail is not an officially recognised UK National Trail. In fact, it is not really a trail at all, more a jigsaw of routes between Fort William and the most northwesterly point of mainland Britain, to be assembled according to your preferences.”

So tells us Iain Harper’s guidebook. On day 10 our pathless descent from Bealach Ban has been exhausting, the strong wind and boggy terrain granting us not a moment rest. The view towards Glen Torridon however is splendid, with menacing clouds compensating in picturesque grimness what the panorama lacks in clarity.

View towards Glen Torridon with Lochan Neimhe © Lodewijk Muns 2016

View towards Glen Torridon with Lochan Neimhe

If you don’t like the weather, wait for fifteen minutes, is the saying in these parts. But the rainstorm which starts the moment we have pitched our tent goes on for ten hours uninterruptedly, pushing the roof into our faces and pressing the water through the cloth. After a sleepless night and with soaking gear the widely detouring and notedly difficult main route ahead has too little temptation. We choose the easiest escape over the asphalt. Unpleasant to the feet and ungratifying to our our hikers’ pride — but we need half a day to rest and dry our gear.

“Sounds like a good idea”, our B&B hostess says when we confess to our shortcut. We have chosen the first B&B on the road, and it is a happy choice. Charming folks, hot tea and cake, a blazing fire, and what makes me feel particularly comfortable, books all over the place.

And strong opinions about the trail. When our host knocks on our door to recommend the local restaurant, it is really to talk about the trail. “Craziness!” is his view of the route we’ve luckily avoided, “it’s insane to lead people around Beinn Eighe!” As a retired mountain rescuer, he seems to know what he’s talking about. And when he goes on about the “original trail”, a network of cattle driving routes from the North to central Scotland, it becomes clear that his idea of the trail is not quite that of our guidebook.

At least our shortcut is excused.

More interestingly, the advice of our host and that of our guidebook complement each other in what sounds like a resonance of debate.

“Some understandably feel that the main route should not pass this way because of the difficult country. I make no apologies however, as the views […] are some of the finest in the Highlands. But make no mistake, the going is very rough […].”

Says the guidebook about the route we have avoided. And when I find a personal reference to our host (who may not like to be identified here) as the man who “has probably done more than any single individual to promote the Cape Wrath Trail […]”, the previous remark acquires special significance.

Curious that of all the B&Bs along the road we have blindly chosen the one with maybe the strongest relation to the trail. Again I have the feeling that parts of this adventure belong to a coherent, well-told story.

There is the guidebook trail, which is largely identical to the trail of the Harvey map. There is the historical trail. There is the challenging trail, the easier trail and the trail you choose. But with growing numbers of hikers that will change, I’m afraid. Someone will connect the paths, put up signposts, and the mysterious plurality of trails will shrivel to just another well-trodden path.

On to Cape Wrath (1)

Moving North

Moving north we hoped the spring would progress ahead of us. But with late snowfall and night temperatures below zero, tree buds remained tightly closed and it looked like we had started too early, in late April.

The Cape Wrath Trail runs from Fort William some 350 km to the North-West tip of Scotland, the cape with the ominous name. Even if in Old Norse this just means “turning point”, it seems appropriately alluring to those who seek a bit of wilderness experience (and maybe a turning point, too).

350 km – and much of it is boot sucking bog. On the CWT every mile counts double and progress can be excruciatingly slow.

On day 6 the cold wind, with a little wet snow, was getting to our bones. We made it to the wooden shed at Coire Reidh – nothing but a crate of loosely fitted planks, we had been warned, but at least a leaky shelter from the wind, a roof over our gear, and a tiny patch of gravelly ground to pitch our tent.

Shed at Coire Reidh © Lodewijk Muns 2016

The next morning the soaked moorland was covered in white, and the sensation of suddenly being in the midst of winter stirred in us a nostalgic childhood excitement. It kept growing while we struggled over trackless ground up to the Bealach Coire Mhàlagain, a mountain pass below the famous (but invisible) Forcan Ridge. A childhood feeling – that of having an “adventure”, or rather,  being in an adventure: like being a character in a story, a story told and controlled by an unknown and unknowable authorial subject or power.

When by map, compass and guesswork we had made it to the bealach, the gentle starry snow had turned into a fierce blizzard. An adventure alright, but one that demanded well-considered action. Rather than wandering on into the featureless whiteness, we decided to pitch our tent on the spot and sit it out. With plenty of food, gas and an SOS device what could go wrong? – after all, it was just a spring blizzard.

Just before we put the last tent peg into the ground four shapes – male, female, and canine – emerged from the opposite direction, and waving my arms I ran towards them. No doubt my gestures, shouts and frozen glasses made me look a little more desperate than I really was. But then, theirs was the hero’s part to play, and our hardy male rescuer energetically took the lead, not only pointing us the way but making sure we would leave a notice of safe arrival at the Shiel Bridge hotel. As we gratefully did.

When later that day, lying on my bunkhouse bed, I looked at our itinerary, I laughed: such a small fraction of the trail we had covered, that it seemed we could never make it to the Cape. A few days later it looked different. Halfway through, the trail started to look doable. And by then the weather was changing too. Spring was catching up.